With the confirmation hearings of Samantha Power to be the
U.S. ambassador to the United Nations imminent, it is a good time to take a
look at one of her signature projects from her tenure at the National Security Staff:
the Atrocities Prevention Board.
A little more than a year ago, President Barack Obama
announced the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board during an address at
the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, saying that this initiative would make the deterrence
of genocide and mass atrocities "a core national security interest and core moral
Both the president and Power seemed acutely aware of the
challenges and risks of trying to develop an inter-agency atrocities prevention
mechanism while the humanitarian tragedy continued to unfold in Syria -- a
conflict into which this administration has been reluctant to wade. Indeed, in
many ways, the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board, or APB, has felt a
bit like trying to build a fire department in the middle of a three-alarm fire.
The roots of the APB come from a bipartisan belief that the
United States, in places like Rwanda and Bosnia, simply did not do enough to
counter genocides and mass atrocities as they gathered force. The 2008 report
from the Genocide Prevention Task Force, co-chaired by former Secretary of
State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, recommended the creation of a new
high-level interagency body -- what they called an Atrocities Prevention
Committee -- to improve U.S. government crisis-response systems and better
equip Washington to mount coherent preventive responses.
As Obama's special advisor for multilateral affairs, an
outspoken champion for human rights and genocide prevention, and the author of
a Pulitzer Prize winning book on the U.S. government and genocide, Power was a
natural fit to breathe life into the Genocide Prevention Task Force's concept
while at the National Security Staff (NSS).
Power secured support for the APB through the August 2011
release of the Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocity Prevention, or PSD-10, of which she was the
lead author. The directive called for the establishment of an interagency
atrocities prevention mechanism, the APB, which would "coordinate a whole of
government approach to preventing mass atrocities and genocide."
However, when the formation of the APB was formally announced
in 2012 by the president, a number of Republican critics used it as an
opportunity to lacerate the president for inaction in Syria. Commentator
Charles Krauthammer, at best an episodic voice on the importance of human
rights, called the board an embarrassment, and bemoaned, "The liberal faith in the power of bureaucracy and flowcharts,
of committees and reports, is legend. But this is parody."
So what does the APB actually do? And what does
the situation in Syria say about its work? The APB consists of high-ranking representatives, all originally
hand-picked by Power, from 11 agencies, including State, Defense, Treasury,
Justice, the CIA and others. The board has essentially split its functions
between looking at long-term structural issues -- such as sanctions regimes and
how government personnel are trained -- and a geographic focus on countries at
risk of mass atrocities, usually over the medium term.
On a weekly
basis, a sub-APB made up of working-level staff from the participating agencies
meets to discuss the structural atrocity issues, with the State Department and
USAID having the largest numbers of personnel involved. Once a month, the APB meets at the assistant-secretary level,
with each agency's representative reporting on important issues raised during
the weekly discussions and following up regarding assigned activities. Quarterly, deputy principals gather
for what has been termed a "deep-dive analysis," with the assistance of an
intelligence community briefing, designed to drive a substantial policy
conversation regarding a country of potential concern. To date, some of the
countries featured in these discussions have included Kenya, Burma, and
Bangladesh. These conversations are designed to mobilize attention and
resources within the respective agencies in an effort to avert atrocities in
the countries under discussion, and to pre-position resources and analysis so
that each agency can be better prepared.
One imagines that most ambassadors don't particularly enjoy such a
review, but such country-specific discussions certainly help sensitize diplomats
to the risk factors associated with mass atrocities, and likely encourage more
energetic efforts to avert such crisis.
Finally, the nine principals involved at the assistant
secretary level also meet annually, and the APB presents an annual report on
its activities and successes to the president in January of each year. Somewhat
bafflingly, the APB has no signature public product, such as the State
Department's annual human
rights report, and one of the most justified knocks on the board's work to
date has been the fact that it has been almost invisible from public view -- a
strategic decision within the administration that has one almost has to
conclude has been driven by the situation in Syria. As a result of its lack of
outreach, support for the APB remains very thin, particularly in Congress. As one
congressional staffer told me, its activities to date are a "complete black
Perhaps the board's most notable successes have come in
getting agencies that have traditionally paid little attention to atrocity
prevention, such as the departments of Treasury and Justice, to develop new
tools to pursue major human rights abusers. Directly as
a result of the APB's work, the Department of Treasury has
managed to place sanctions on suspected human rights abusers in the Democratic Republic
of Congo, Zimbabwe, Iran, and Myanmar, and notably on 41 entities or individuals
in Syria or with ties to the embattled Assad regime. The Department of Justice now
has prosecutors working on human-rights abuse cases; a fraud team is assisting
in seizing assets of human-rights abusers; and U.S. officials are helping train
counterparts in other countries on how best to prosecute human rights cases.
These are useful wins, as has been the improved coordination between agencies
and improved training on these issues at State and USAID. Making the U.S.
government better at atrocity prevention, by its very nature, includes some
stuff that is not very sexy.
This brings us back to the elephant in the room: Syria. Since
the uprising began in February 2011, the United Nations estimates that at least
80,000 Syrians have been killed, roughly 4 million are internally displaced,
and at least 1.5 million have fled the country entirely. It is exactly the kind
of carnage for which the APB was created to help prevent or diffuse.
Lanny Breuer, who represented the Justice Department on the
APB until recently, argued
that it was "unrealistic for a new entity that has no real authority to
galvanize the government on Syria," and added, "But what it can do is to raise
awareness." Breuer's comments may be accurate, but if so, the administration
surely oversold the APB's potential when it was rolled out.
On background, those affiliated with the APB argue that it has functioned largely as
it should during the crisis. They point out that the APB was created to push
decisionmaking and policymaking on mass atrocities to the highest levels in
government, and that the decisions on how to respond to the situation in Syria
have been rigorously debated by the president and his core national security team.
No board can force a president's hand, and most agree that the policy choices
in Syria run the gamut from bad to awful. Perhaps the APB is better positioned
to deal with crises that are over the horizon or for which there are warning
signs rather than ones that are directly unfolding. But, all that said, the APB
was created with the express intent to prevent
the next Rwanda or Bosnia, and Syria is looking an awful lot like one of those
tragedies for which the phrase "never again" keeps getting repeated.
Much of Power's career as an author and an activist was absolutely
illuminated by her incandescent willingness to speak truth to power -- which
helps explain why the APB's sotto voce
approach has felt so dissatisfying with regard to Syria. The APB is doing good,
important, and long-overdue work, but that legacy will surely be obscured if Syria continues to burn.
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